"A Night in a Workhouse" in The Pall Mall Gazette, James Greenwood

On the 12th of January 1866, the first chapter of Greenwood’s “A Night in a Workhouse” sold for one penny on the streets of London. Writing under the pseudonym “The Amateur Casual”, Greenwood revealed his experience inside Lambeth’s casual ward. Social investigators had long visited and written about the dreadful living conditions of London’s destitute, but never before had a journalist adapted the guise of a casual in order to expose the everyday realities of the poor. This timely visit came after the passing of the controversial 1864 Metropolitan Houseless Poor Act, which obliged unions to admit all destitute wanderers.

Greenwood’s exposé was released in a three part series, building great public anticipation around the degrading conditions. He even released a separate, more “tasteful” pamphlet, intended for middle class consumption, which sold for one shilling instead of a penny. “A Night in the Workhouse” sold thousands of copies, was reprinted in newspapers around the country, and read by all classes in British society. Contemporaries were already critical of workhouse and casual ward conditions, alarmed by their role in the public health crisis.

Dressed in a scruffy brown overcoat, Greenwood is admitted under a fake alias by answering a few simple questions: what is your name, your occupation, where did you sleep last night, how many times have you been here, and where do you intend to go in the morning? He is stripped and bathed in pool of water that resembles “mutton-broth” by the welcoming male warden named “daddy”. After he’s given a small ration of bread, Greenwood is shown to the dingy, overcrowded shed where he’ll be spending this cold winter night. 30 men and boys are piled into a 30 by 30 foot enclosed space. Upon closer examination, he notices naked limbs and torsos nestled side-by-side.

Greenwood purposely played on Victorian fears of male sexual intimacy in order stir up outrage, and it worked. His subtle hints of homoerotic relationships inside the male casual wards horrified readers, for people were already worried that these quarters encouraged unnatural desires where young boys replaced women as sexual partners. We can’t know for sure if Greenwood actually encountered queer intimacies during his visit to the casual ward or if he exaggerated such details to frighten his audience in the name reform. But this account reveals that Victorians aren’t as prudish as we’re told they are and some supported reform purely to prevent the spread of vice amongst the destitute.

What do you think?